Senate outlook slides for GOP
Democrats are within striking distance of retaking the Senate majority in November, while Republicans are facing an increasingly difficult electoral map as President Trump’s sagging poll numbers threaten to drag down vulnerable GOP incumbents.
Several recent polls show Democratic challengers leading Republican incumbents in Arizona, North Carolina and Iowa. The GOP is also fending off tough challenges in a handful of other states, including Colorado, Maine and Montana.
Democrats need three or four seats to win the Senate, depending on who wins the White House.
Republicans still appear on track to unseat Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) in Alabama, the only Democratic senator in the Deep South. But in Michigan, one of the states Republicans saw as a potential pick-up opportunity, polls show Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) leading Republican John James.
Here are the states in play with four months to go before Election Day:
Jones is heading into his reelection bid as perhaps the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the country. He won his seat in a tumultuous 2017 special election, but only after allegations of sexual assault upended the campaign of his Republican rival, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
It’s still unclear exactly whom Jones will face in the November general election. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville are slated to face off in a GOP primary runoff on July 14 to determine which one will take on Jones this fall.
Regardless of who emerges from the GOP nominating contest, Jones is in serious political danger. Virtually every poll to come out of the state in recent months shows the Democratic senator trailing both Republicans. A recent survey from the Republican firm Cygnal showed Tuberville leading Jones by 14 points, while Sessions led by 10 points.
Trump also remains popular in Alabama, with data from the polling firm Civiqs showing his approval at 51 percent in the state — far higher than his national average of 41 percent.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) is expected to face presumptive Democratic nominee Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and anti-gun violence activist, in November as she looks to hold on to the Senate seat she was appointed to in 2018 following the death of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
McSally was appointed after losing a bid for the state’s other Senate seat to current Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Kelly is among the most prolific political fundraisers in the country, pulling in more than $31 million for his campaign since launching his Senate bid in early 2019. By comparison, McSally has raised about $12 million less than that, bringing in about $19 million in the same time frame.
Current polling paints a dire picture of McSally’s prospects against Kelly. A CNBC-Change Research survey released on Wednesday showed the former astronaut leading her by 9 points, and a recent New York Times-Siena College poll put Kelly ahead by a similar margin.
Democrats have put up a political heavyweight in former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to take on Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in November. Hickenlooper secured his party’s Senate nomination on June 30 after overcoming a primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
Hickenlooper is heading into the general election with some key advantages. Colorado has drifted to the left in recent years, a shift exemplified by the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won control of the state government for the first time since 1936. At the same time, Democrats have racked up a roughly 80,000-person voter registration advantage over Republicans, marking a significant change from June 2016, when the GOP held a 13,000-person advantage.
Polling in the matchup between Gardner and Hickenlooper has been scarce, though Republicans concede that their incumbent is in for a tough reelection fight. But Hickenlooper also faltered more than once during his campaign, and Republicans are already plotting an onslaught against him over ethics violations that rattled Hickenlooper’s campaign in the weeks before the primary election.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) shot to the top of Democrats’ target list in 2017 after she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court while he faced a sexual assault allegation.
National Democrats are backing state House Speaker Sara Gideon for the nomination to take on Collins in November. There have been few polls in the race, but a survey conducted in March by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling showed Gideon with a 4-point lead on Collins.
Nevertheless, the race is still taking shape. Gideon is set to face off against progressive Betsy Sweet in a Democratic primary on July 14. And Collins, a four-term Senate incumbent, has a political brand in her home state that few if any politicians can match, which may prove difficult for a challenger to overcome.
Still, Gideon outraised Collins in the first quarter of the year, raking in about $7.1 million to her opponent’s $2.4 million, and she’s not too far behind Collins in overall cash on hand.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is up against a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham in this crucial presidential swing state, and recent polling suggests that the race is as competitive as ever.
A New York Times-Siena College poll conducted earlier this month showed Cunningham ahead by 3 points in the race against Tillis, while a subsequent Fox News poll showed Cunningham up by 2 points. Even more recently, an East Carolina University survey showed a dead heat, with each candidate garnering 41 percent of the vote.
Still, there are some warning signs for Tillis. Trump’s popularity in the state has dipped in recent weeks, with the ECU poll showing a 4-point drop in approval since May. Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pulled ahead of Trump in North Carolina in a handful of recent polls.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) started the year well-positioned to win a second term. But the entrance of Montana’s current Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, into the race in March complicated Daines’s prospects of an easy reelection bid and threw him into one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country.
Both candidates are relatively popular in Montana, but Bullock’s approval rating has soared in recent months as he took a leading role in his state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. That rise in approval prompted the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, to shift the race last month from “lean” Republican status to “toss-up” status.
There are other dynamics at play, however. Trump carried Montana by 20 points in 2016, and the state appears poised to vote for him once again, meaning Daines could benefit from having the president at the top of the ballot in November.
Much like how Republicans had hoped to bring Peters’s Michigan Senate seat into play this year, Democrats have argued for months that ousting Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is within the realm of possibility. And while Ernst still has an advantage in her home state, there are signs that the race is becoming more competitive.
Polling from the Des Moines Register and Mediacom released last month showed Ernst trailing her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, by a narrow 3-point margin. Another survey fielded by Public Policy Polling showed Greenfield ahead by 2 points.
In one key finding, the Des Moines Register poll showed Greenfield leading Ernst by a 31-point margin among white women without a college degree.
Trump’s support also appears to be eroding in the state. The Des Moines Register poll released last month showed him holding a scant, 1-point lead over Biden in the presidential race, far below his 9-point margin of victory there in 2016.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) was appointed late last year to fill the seat of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). But it didn’t take long for her to draw a bevy of challengers from both her left and her right.
Her main Republican challenger is Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a steadfast Trump ally who’s campaigning on his support for the president. Meanwhile, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has emerged as Loeffler’s main Democratic opponent.
The special election is being run as a “jungle primary,” meaning that instead of partisan primaries to determine nominees, candidates from all parties will appear on the ballot in November. If no candidate manages to break the 50 percent threshold, the race will advance to a runoff early next year.
Democrats believe that a runoff election next year could give them an opportunity to strike. A recent poll from the liberal group End Citizens United found Warnock leading Loeffler by 3 points in a head-to-head matchup. That same poll showed him running only 2 points behind Collins in a similar hypothetical matchup.
Michigan stood as one of the few states where Republicans saw an opportunity to go on the offensive this year, believing that Trump’s surprise win there in 2016 and Peters’s relatively low name ID set the stage for a potential GOP win.
But there are signs that that opportunity may be slipping. A New York Times-Siena College poll released this month showed Peters leading Republican John James by 10 points. On Wednesday, a newly released CNBC-Change Research survey found Peters leading by 7 points.
Meanwhile, virtually every public poll out of the state in recent months has shown Biden leading Trump in the presidential contest, suggesting that Republicans may not be able to capture the same kind of voter energy this year as they did in 2016.
The race to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has emerged as something of a wild card given the uncertainty surrounding the state’s Republican Senate primary.
Some Republicans had sought to coax Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the Senate race, believing that his candidacy could quickly break through a crowded GOP primary field and put the party on a glide path to victory in November.
But Pompeo ultimately declined to run, leaving nearly a dozen Republican hopefuls to jockey for their party’s nomination in an Aug. 4 primary. Of real concern to Republicans is a possible primary win by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an ultraconservative Trump ally who lost a 2018 gubernatorial bid to Democrat Laura Kelly.
Democrats have yet to choose their candidate to replace Roberts, but the current front-runner is state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who has outraised her primary rivals and has the endorsement of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).
It’s too early to know how the race in Kansas will unfold, but operatives on both sides of the aisle say that the seat could come into play this fall, especially if Kobach emerges as the GOP nominee.